After the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Olympics was announced in March, Japan’s men’s national basketball team had hoped to use the extra time to further its development and preparation.
The ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, has thrown a wrench in those plans.
The Akatsuki Five recently held their first training camp in nine months at Tokyo’s National Training Center. The camp had originally been scheduled as part of the team’s preparation for the second window of the FIBA Asian Cup qualifiers this month, before some of those games, including contests in Group B where Japan is competing, were canceled due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases around the world.
Japan still went ahead with the camp as a way to build chemistry within the team. The camp had been scheduled to continue until Thursday, but was abruptly called off Nov. 21 after it was revealed Chiba Jets Funabashi big man Gavin Edwards had contracted the virus.
Since going 0-5 at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, Japan head coach Julio Lamas and his staff have been desperately trying to create a team that can be competitive against the world’s best at the Olympics.
“Eight months isn’t a lot of time,” Utsunomiya Brex veteran forward Kosuke Takeuchi said on Nov. 20 of the time remaining until the Summer Games. “We initially thought there would be a lot of time when we learned the games were postponed. But in the end, since we haven’t been able to have any training camps (since February) it actually feels like we don’t have much time. Plus, the B. League season is very long.”
The 2020-21 B. League campaign, which kicked off in early October, will end in late May, two months before the Olympic basketball tournament, which starts July 25.
The lack of opportunities to practice may affect players who haven’t spent much time under Lamas, such as Aki Chambers of the Yokohama B-Corsairs, Kosuke Hashimoto of the Toyama Grouses and the Jets’ Takuma Sato.
It might also have an effect on bubble players who were left off the World Cup roster like Leo Vendrame of the Sunrockers Shibuya and Naoto Tsuji of the Kawasaki Brave Thunders, too.
It’s uncertain what effect the COVID-19 diagnosis will have on Edwards’ case to make the team. One of the position battles that drew a lot of attention during the camp was between Edwards and Utsunomiya forward Ryan Rossiter.
Joji Takeuchi, Kosuke’s twin brother, said both naturalized players have provided nothing but positive energy.
“We’ve just finished the second day of the training camp and haven’t played a lot of 5-on-5s yet,” Joji said on Friday. “But (Edwards) has been in Japan for so many years and both he and Ryan have played extremely hard. One of the things we were told to be more aware of is our offensive rebounding. And those two have competed hard in that area.”
Edwards has not made an official debut for Japan yet. Before the first window of the Asia Cup qualifiers in February, Lamas said he was planning to use the former University of Connecticut player during an Asia Cup qualifier against China to assess how he fits with the team. That game was postponed due to COVID-19. Rossiter played in a 96-57 win over Taiwan, scoring 17 points, grabbing 19 rebounds and dishing out seven assists.
Lamas, who coached his native Argentina to a fourth-place finish at the London Games in 2012, had been working on implementing some new systems and was walking the players through the details during the training camp. He wasn’t able to fully complete that process, however.
The Japan Basketball Association plans to host another training camp before the Asia Cup qualifiers in February, although how FIBA Asia plans to handle the schedule with so many games having been postponed has yet to be revealed.
Speaking before the Edwards case was found, Ryusei Shinoyama, a Brave Thunders point guard, said the national team players have deepened their understanding of Lamas’ brand of basketball and that the squad was definitely heading in the right direction and perhaps doing even better than before under his new systems.
“After the World Cup, the coaches brainstormed to create a variety of strategies and systems toward the Olympics,” Shinoyama said. “And we feel like the new systems will work out well for us and it’s only a positive that we’ve been given time (with the postponement of the games). So we’re getting more competitive and getting better. Unfortunately, our games in November have been called off and it’s frustrating that we can’t play as the national team. But I think we are doing things in a positive mood and are accumulating energy right now.”
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